When Teens Are Aware and Empowered, Healthy Dating Norms Prevail


Intimate partner violence (IPV)—which includes emotional, physical, and sexual dating violence—affected millions of Americans every year before the pandemic, and emerging data show the COVID-19 pandemic has escalated the risks for victims. And this public health crisis isn’t exclusive to adults. Research shows many US adolescents experience violence at the hands of an intimate partner (PDF).

IPV has serious consequences for the health and safety of teens. Survivors experience physical, emotional, social, and academic problems. They are more likely to engage in physical fights, binge drinking, and drug use and are more likely to experience mental health problems, including engaging in self-harm. And evidence shows violence during adolescence may be associated with partner violence in adult life.

Early recognition and intervention are critical for young people. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly 1 in 11 female teens and approximately 1 in 15 males (PDF) who dated in high school reported instances of dating violence in 2019. In Washington, DC, 1 in 10 high school students reported experiencing physical dating violence last year, and 5 percent of students reported experiencing sexual dating violence.

One DC community-based program has adapted to continue helping young people throughout the pandemic to address the heightened reality of teen dating violence. By employing community-driven approaches to educate teens about dating violence, the program is helping young people identify healthy relationships, recognize how to provide and receive help if they need it, and eliminate unhealthy behaviors.

Giving young people the tools to recognize and address intimate partner violence helps prevent it

Promoting Adolescent Sexual Health and Safety (PASS), a community-based program in DC, educates and trains young people and adults in sexual health and safety to helps teens identify and respond to dangerous situations. The program is tailored for teens between ages 13 and 19 and has two parallel curricula, Sisters Rising for girls and Brothers Rising for boys (gender nonconforming young people select which group they prefer to participate in). Through 10 engaging sessions, young people learn about and discuss the causes of dating violence, ways they can help a friend in an abusive relationship, common gender stereotypes regarding dating violence, and important prevention techniques.

Our forthcoming analysis of the PASS program survey data from three separate cohorts, composed of 55 females, 48 males, 1 transgender male, and 3 who identified as “other” gender identities, each taking place over a 10-week period in 2017–18, found three positive behavior and attitudinal changes among participants.

  1. Defining what a healthy and unhealthy relationship looks like increased teens’ awareness of what constitutes violence
    To measure the change in perception of abusive behaviors, the young people ranked 14 different types of abuse, from physically hurting someone to spreading sexual rumors, as not at all abusive, a little abusive, very abusive, or extremely abusive. Results indicate that young people who participated in the PASS program had greater awareness of what constitutes healthy and abusive dating relationships, with a greater number of young people ranking the types of abuse as at least “a little abusive” and up to “extremely abusive.”
  2. Dating violence, including physical, psychological, and cyber violence, decreased

    The PASS curricula seek to change behavior patterns by building new skills that promote self-awareness, confidence, and self-efficacy by preparing for specific, familiar, real-life situations. During 10 consecutive weeks of two-hour sessions, participants develop a deeper understanding around unhealthy gender expectations that reinforce inequality and other passive behavioral norms (especially around sex and dating relationships), as well as the physical, psychological, and cyber abuse that exacerbates power dynamics. After program activities, participants reported, on average, a decrease in violence perpetuation from their self-reported baseline.

    Dating Violence Perpetration before and after PASS Program

  3. Teens were more likely to intend to intervene to prevent violence
    Part of the PASS program focuses on equipping young adults with the skills needed to safety intervene when they witness behaviors that can result in dating abuse. Participants reported improved bystander behaviors, with 16 percent of the participants saying in the post program survey they would not intervene, compared with 35 percent in the baseline. Thirty-six percent report they would confront the abuser in public, compared with 22 percent in the baseline, and 28 percent report they would confront the abuser in private, compared with 23 percent in the baseline.

Experiencing violence during adolescence can have long-lasting effects, making community-based programs like PASS all the more critical to preventing violence before it occurs. By promoting comprehensive sexual health education that equips young people with the knowledge and skills necessary to build healthy relationships and make informed, responsible decisions, organizations serving young people across cities can lessen the impact of intimate partner violence and prevent the victimization cycle.